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Archbishop of Baltimore Says Pope’s Message Comes Down to Evangelization

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Archbishop William E. Lori discusses Holy Father’s call to bishops and all Christians

Archbishop William E. Lori was appointed the 16th Archbishop of Baltimore, the premier see of the Church in the United States, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. He spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky about the significance of Pope Francis’ visit and what the Holy Father’s message means for bishops and for all of the faithful.

Archbishop Lori, you were on the tarmac to greet the Holy Father when he arrived on Tuesday afternoon. What have you been most looking forward to about his visit?

Anytime the successor of Peter comes to one’s homeland, it’s a great blessing. I think I’ve been looking forward to it most because he brings with him, in a very special way, the Gospel. He really is all about evangelization, whether he’s talking abut social issues, whether he’s canonizing Junipero Serra, whether he’s encouraging us to care for our common home, or talking about religious liberty. At base, it’s about evangelization, and that’s about opening our hearts to God’s mercy.

The pope’s talk to the U.S. bishops yesterday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in D.C. was quite moving and there was a lot to unpack there. What struck you the most about his message?

Several things. First, as a bishop sitting there, I felt very, very encouraged. He thanked us for our service to the poor and immigrants and there was wonderful encouragement about our Catholic schools. He understood how difficult it’s been to deal with the tragic situation of clergy sexual abuse. In many ways I felt the Holy Father was expressing a great brotherly solidarity with us, as bishops. And I think it was important that he do so because sometimes people like to create a lot of tension between the pope and the bishops. But this was the opposite — fraternal solidarity.

At the same time, I think the Holy Father recognizes that operating in any culture, including our own, involves a lot of challenges, and as he has done in the other places, he encouraged us be pastors, with the deepest respect for our roots, to deal with our problems with creativity and dialogue, trying to understand people who differ with us.

So, there’s a lot to unpack. It was kind of a mini-summary of what the Church has been saying to bishops — very effective and very moving.

In the speech, Francis called the bishops promoters of “the culture of encounter.” What do you think he means by this?

I think this is a cornerstone of his pastoral approach — it means that in order to carry forward the Church’s mission, we have to open ourselves as pastors — first and foremost in prayer, not just any prayer, but a prayer of special intimacy with the Lord. Encountering the Lord Jesus in daily prayer is primary.

Following that, he challenges us as pastors to draw from this encounter with Christ, a deeper and more beautiful capacity to encounter those we serve, and ought to be serving. That means, approaching them in ways where we open up lines of communication, where we try to understand each other. It does not mean compromising our faith, checking our values at the door, but listening and being a messenger of mercy and light and of the Gospel. This is the work of being a pastor.

The Holy Father also talked a lot about unity — saying the mission of a bishop is first and foremost to solidify unity. Why do you think he wanted to emphasize this so much? 

First of all, unity in the Church, among the Lord’s believers, is essential for the mission of evangelization — it really is all about evangelization — and the Lord himself prayed we would be one so that the world would believe. The Holy Father knows when we as Christians bicker in public we destroy the credibility of the Gospel.

All of us are part of the Body of Christ, part of the communion. If we are to be leaven in society, we need to model this communion for a badly divided society. We tend to think of that in terms of partisan divisions, but really it’s more than that; it’s about living in a badly fragmented society — individualism, narcissism, selfishness, one that ignores the poor and vulnerable, the sick and the unborn. We need to go into this culture and be a model of unity.

The way we do this is dialogue — that’s our method — but courageous dialogue, which on one hand means going well beyond your comfort zone. I can tell you, I’ve gone places and done things that as a young priest I would never have thought I’d do. You also bring into the mix things like the common good, solidarity, the proclamation of Christ and his death and resurrection.

I was struck by the beautiful imagery the Holy Father used about the Church in the U.S. needing to be “a humble home, a family hearth” and also this idea that “only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not just any fire, but the Easter morning fire.” Is there a message here for lay people as well?

There is. It’s really a call to discipleship. When he speaks of “missionary discipleship,” certainly he means pastors, but he also means every single Christian. But we cannot be disciples, unless we are warmed by the fire of the Holy Spirit, a fire that burns away our sins and warms our hearts such that we can go out and convince others about the truth, goodness, beauty and love of Christ. That image really struck me, too, and I don’t think I will ever preach the East Vigil the same way again.

Francis chose to give his brother bishops two recommendations at the end of his talk— one about being good fathers to your priests, and the other to opening up the doors to immigrants and welcoming the changes this brings to the Church. What are your thoughts about why he chose to single out these two things?

I was very happy to see these two recommendations at the end.

First, the longer I am a bishop — and it’s been 20 years now — the more deeply I appreciate the wonderful dedication of my brother priests and the challenges they face. They really are on the front lines. I think of the unrest here in Baltimore back in April. I think about the pastors in those neighborhoods. Those pastors do not live in the suburbs and commute in; they live on those streets, they see the problems there every day.

I have to say in Baltimore I have found a wonderful, warm presbyterate — not that they agree with everything I do — but I find the priests here to be friendly, warm and welcoming — and great co-workers. So, I was happy to see that from the Holy Father. I recognize that a bishop can never support his priests enough.

Baltimore has always been a church of immigrants, of many languages. We have huge immigration from Mexico, Central America, Africa, Haiti, and many other places. I think the Pope is saying to welcome them as pastors, as Jesus would. But it’s not just a one-way street. They are doing us a favor; they are bringing their cultures, languages, piety, and gifts of grace and nature that enrich the local Church. It’s always been that way, we’ve done that from the beginning in the United States, and we need to keep being that kind of Church.

A lot of Francis’ homily at the Canonization Mass, given in Spanish, was focused on the missionary call of the Church — to go out into the world, just as it is. How should the Church today take up the Holy Father’s challenge and how do we incorporate this into the New Evangelization?

It seems to me that the pope did a wonderful thing in making Junipero Serra a model for us as missionaries. One of Saint Junipero Serra’s mottos was to always “go forward,” to keep going. So first and foremost, there’s never a time when we rest on our laurels and look back to another day that we thought was healthier and happier in the life of Church. We live in the present time and we go out as missionary disciples, who have encountered Christ in prayer and allowed him to transform our own hearts — not as lone rangers, but as part of a community.

And if you are part of a parish, no matter who you are, you recognize that it’s not enough just to have a nice parish with nice programs, you have to wonder about who isn’t there, why you see huge crowds at Christmas and Easter and then they’re gone. Where are these families? What has become of their faith? Parishes need to mobilize, and work across parish lines and figure out how to encounter these people, find out what’s in their hearts, their questions and concerns. This then provides a greater chance for them to hear the call to discipleship and once again become active members of the Body of Christ, I’ve written a whole pastoral letter on this myself called,  A Light Brightly Visible. This is the way I think the pope has been tugging on my heart.

This pope draws many different reactions from both inside and outside the Church. What can the Church in the U.S. learn from him? What is the gift he is offering our Church right now?

I think he’s offering us many things — first, the gift of his presence. We are encountering this pope in these days — and not just the people lucky enough to be in his physical presence, to see him, and not just the celebrity —but we are all feeling his pastoral concern and love. It’s a beautiful, beautiful gift.

I think he’s encouraging us to go about the work of evangelization, to continue the struggle to keep the room clear in our culture to do our mission, to protect our liberty and use it for excellence. And he’s encouraging us to be welcoming and to be an outward-bound Church. It’s all good. Finally, I think he’s encouraging us to be a model of unity in a culture which, for various reasons, is fragmented.

There’s one more thing: I think the Holy Father mostly came here to affirm the family. To give encouragement to those couples who are trying to making a go of their marriages, these fundamental relationships are something he talked about in his address to Congress. The highlight of his trip is the World Meeting of Families, so I think high on the list, when the whole trip is said and done, will be his support for family life. This is critical for the Church and for society.

Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Curator for Aleteia

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